It’s almost time for the 2014-15 college basketball season! Teams have been playing exhibition games for the past couple weeks, but we finally get the official start of the season this Friday.
Duke will be taking on Presbyterian at 6pm EST in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and there will be a full slate of games around the country to kick things off, including some very intriguing match-ups.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Rick Pitino handles coaching against his son when Louisville takes on Minnesota in Puerto Rico. The Quicken Loans Veterans Classic at the Naval Academy should be a fantastic atmosphere for the double-header featuring Tennessee against VCU and Michigan State against Navy. And it’s always exciting to see if any ranked teams come out flat and get upset to start the season.
While the focus at Duke Report is primarily about Duke Basketball, I also try to keep an eye on major things happening around the ACC and the national landscape of college basketball. If nothing else, it helps when it comes time to fill out a bracket on Selection Sunday!
Here are my predictions for the winners in the major conferences around the country this season.
A few months ago, I would have considered SMU to be the heavy favorite to win the American Athletic Conference. Larry Brown has done a fantastic job with the Mustangs and this looked like the season when he would get the team back to the NCAA Tournament and contending for a conference title. Then, incoming 5-star recruit Emmanual Mudiay elected to skip college to go play professionally in China, and returning power forward Markus Kennedy is facing questions about his eligibility. What looked to be an incredibly promising roster now has lots of questions.
Kevin Ollie proved last season that he’s one of the best young coaches in the country. He guided UConn to a national championship behind outstanding guard play and great defense, and he’ll likely try to replicate that formula with the Huskies again this season. Shabazz Napier will be extremely difficult to replace, but Ryan Boatright is a great guard who’s operated in Napier’s shadow and Rodney Purvis, the N.C. State transfer, will also be eligible this season.
Player of the Year: Shaq Goodwin – Memphis
ACC: North Carolina
Nothing would make me happier than being completely wrong about this pick.
Marcus Paige has now had two years to mature and embrace the role of being one of the best players in college basketball, and there should be enough pieces around him this season to where he doesn’t have to always put the team on his back in close games.
Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson should be a very formidable presence for the Tar Heels in the paint, giving Roy Williams depth in the frontcourt and backcourt.
For all the distractions around the North Carolina program right now, I expect Williams to re-focus this group to being committed to the things they can control on the court and for this to be a special season in Chapel Hill.
Atlantic 10: VCU
For all he’s accomplished – do you know how many conference championships Shaka Smart has at VCU? Try “none.”
The Rams never won the Colonial Athletic Conference in Smart’s first three years, and the program has been runner-up in its first two seasons as a member of the Atlantic 10. It’s a small knock on Smart’s impressive resume, but something people have started to notice and an issue he should be able to resolve this season.
VCU’s style will overwhelm most A-10 opponents and the Rams have one of the best players in the country in Treveon Graham.
Player of the Year: Treveon Graham – VCU
Big 12: Iowa State
It’s stupid to pick against Kansas to win the Big 12, but someone has to break the streak at some point, right?!
Fred Hoiberg might be my favorite coach in college basketball not named “Mike Krzyzewski” and he’s done a brilliant job in Ames with the Cyclones. His ability to re-tool his team every year with transfers and young players without stocking up on 5-star recruits is extremely impressive.
This season, Iowa State might have the most versatile big man in the country in Georges Niang, and Bryce Dejean-Jones appears to be the latest transfer ready to step in and becoming an immediate impact player for the Cyclones.
Picking against the Jayhawks is never wise, but I think this is the year Hoiberg gets Iowa State to the top of the Big 12 mountain that’s belonged to Kansas for so long.
Player of the Year: Marcus Foster – Kansas State
Big East: Villanova
Villanova might be one of the best teams in college basketball no one is talking about as we enter the 2014-15 season.
It’s not a team that jumps out with star power, but Jay Wright has a veteran group with great chemistry and balance. The Wildcats are a team that will likely fly under the radar for much of the season but they’re built for postseason success.
Villanova returns seven guys who averaged double-digit minutes last season, including Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, who both averaged over 14 points per game. If Daniel Ochefu can be a consistent presence in the paint, this is a squad that will be strong at every position.
The biggest thing that could hurt the Wildcats is if they go through the Big East relatively untested because of a lack of quality competition around the league this year.
Player of the Year: D’Vauntes Smith Rivera – Georgetown
Big Ten: Wisconsin
Wisconsin is loaded this season. If I had a vote in the Preseason Top 25, the Badgers would get my vote as the best team in the country.
Bo Ryan returns two First Team All-American candidates in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, but they will also have experienced role players around them. Wisconsin returns seven of its top eight scorers from last season’s Final Four squad that was one possession away from playing for the national championship.
Normally, the Badgers are a very difficult opponent because of their physical style and deliberate pace. Now, Bo Ryan has a team that can implement that pace while also being extremely talented and experienced.
I’d hate to be a fan of a team that has Wisconsin on the schedule this season. Wait…Duke does?! [gulp.]
Player of the Year: Sam Dekker – Wisconsin
Mountain West: San Diego State
You wouldn’t expect San Diego St. to be a place where the program can reload every year, but that’s exactly what Steve Fisher has done with the Aztecs. He’s led the team to nine consecutive seasons of at least 20 wins or more and this could be the deepest team he’s had during his tenure.
The combination of Winston Shepherd and Dwayne Polee will lead the attack for the Aztecs, and their length will be part of what makes this one of the best defense teams in the country.
This could be Steve Fisher’s best chance to make one final deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Player of the Year: Winston Shepard – San Diego State
Not only are the Wildcats the favorites to win the Pac 12, Sean Miller’s squad is also a popular pick to cut down the nets at the Final Four in April.
Arizona could boast the best starting lineup in the country and they have talent at every position, particularly on the wing with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and incoming freshman Stanley Johnson. Add in the return of a healthy Brandon Ashley along with Kaleb Tarczewski and it helps give the team tremendous length.
If Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson can play up to their All-American potential, this could be the group that helps Sean Miller shed the label of “Best Coach Not to Reach a Final Four.”
Player of the Year: Chasson Randle – Stanford
This is the easiest pick of any conference in the country. With Florida likely in a bit of a rebuilding year after losing so many seniors from last season’s team, Kentucky is loaded and there should be a significant talent gap between the Cats and the rest of the teams around the SEC.
Much will be made about how John Calipari defines the roles with all the different players on this year’s Kentucky team, but they could still struggle through most of the conference schedule and have a great chance to win the league. There really aren’t any other schools that will be able to match-up with the size on the UK roster and this is actually a squad that has a bit of experience facing difficult SEC environments on the road.
Player of the Year: Jarvis Summers – Ole Miss
West Coast: Gonzaga
Another year, another great opportunity for Gonzaga to capture a West Coast Conference championship. Mark Few has another balanced and deep squad that should roll through the regular season and be in good position to earn a high seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell combine to give the Zags one of the better backcourts in college basketball. 7’1”, 290-pound Przemek Karnowski is a mountain of a man who will be extremely difficult to deal with in the paint. And the arrival of Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer gives the Bulldogs a versatile forward who can stretch the floor with his shooting ability.
This appears to be another season in which Gonzaga has a team that can compete with anyone in the country.
Player of the Year: Tyler Haws – BYU
What do you think about my predictions? What would you change? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter at @davidmaldridge.